Cai Guo-Qiang remembers vividly his joy as a child during lantern festivals in his native Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian province, China.
The red spheres, the yellow stars, the orange fish — all sparkling with light.
"The lights for the lanterns were candles, so as a kid when you run around with them, it's very easy to catch fire," Cai, now 59, said recently as he stood in a temporary studio in a former Kensington factory building.
Known around the world for his explosive, fiery artworks, Cai is creating something less combustible, something less raucous — but just as memorable — to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
On this particular warm August day, Cai stood amid a dangling forest of pale green aliens, yellow smiley faces, red and green watermelon chunks, cicadas, bright-green grass hoppers, bobbing red spheres, yellow stars, airplanes, and dozens of other shapes and colors all wired with LED lights, eventually to be attached to flexible rods affixed to 27 specially fabricated pedicabs.
This is the world of Fireflies, Cai's evocative homage to the Parkway. Commissioned by the Association for Public Art with curator Lance Fung of San Francisco's Fung Collective, Fireflies will be introduced to the public in a ceremony and performance on Sept. 14.
On Sept. 15, public rides begin. Anyone will be able to take a free one-way ride on the pedicabs (in the glow of their 900 lanterns made from polyurethaned fabric in Cai's hometown of Quanzhou) as they move between Sister Cities Park at 18th Street and Iroquois Park across from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The pedicabs will operate Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 15 to Oct. 8., from 6 to 10 each evening.
(Rides for the public will be available beginning Sept. 15 and will continue through Oct. 8, Thursday through Sundays from 6 to 10 p.m. Online reservations for one-way rides from Sister Cities Park to Iroquois Park, and vice versa, will be available but walk-ups are also welcome. Details about making a reservation are coming soon.)
"The lanterns will glow at night, and they are installed in such a way that they will move and be flickering – that was the idea behind Fireflies," said Penny Balkin Bach, executive director of the Association for Public Art. "Our desire was to commission something that was new, that would relate to the Parkway, and that would actually describe the physical attributes of the Parkway.
"If you think about it, it might even be considered a beautiful line drawing in light that goes up the Parkway and around so that, pardon the pun, you see the Parkway in a new light."
For Cai, Fireflies represents a departure from his well-known work with gunpowder and fireworks, such as the spectacular displays he created for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His work was last seen in Philadelphia in 2008, with the Fallen Blossoms: Explosion Project that burned a fleeting flower into the night sky above the Art Museum (in memory of its late director Anne d'Harnoncourt); concurrently, Cai created the smoldering Time Scroll at the Fabric Workshop and Museum.
This time, the Parkway will experience a quieter Cai, reflective, a bit nostalgic. But an artist still concerned with time, light, and memory.
"I conceived of these lanterns as my childhood fireworks," Cai said through an interpreter from his New York studio, Béatrice Grenier. "In a way, the fact that these lanterns were created in my hometown of Quanzhou links them to my childhood, to my childhood dreams, and to my emotion for it. It also symbolizes, in a way, my trajectory as an immigrant artist, departing from Quanzhou and moving to Japan, and then, again, establishing myself in the United States."
Fung, who curated Fireflies, bringing Cai and the Association for Public Art together, believes Cai has taken a huge leap with the project.
"It's a big divergence from the gunpowder drawings or the explosions," Fung said. "But it still has that spectacle. It references fireworks … but it really is a very inward piece."
Fung also believes the fanciful bobbing lanterns illuminate Cai's humor.
"Usually his work … doesn't seem like it's fun and playful, even though it's fireworks and gunpowder," Fung said. "The work is sort of 'art-ified' by art critics as very serious. Most people haven't seen that, the humor and playfulness in it."
Cai says the shapes for the lanterns were partially drawn from his own childhood memories.
"A part of them is from my kids' childhoods, and then a part of them is also my studio staff. We thought, 'What kind of shapes can we make?' Some are contemporary, like the emojis and the extraterrestrials, the cellphones," he said. "I'm the boy who never grows up."
Playfulness, dancing light, and pedicabs (fabricated in Montana) do not make for a "conventional celebration with an orchestra playing — it's a celebration that everyone can partake in," Cai said.
Which fits with the attention the Association for Public Art has sought to bring to the Parkway, a part of the city for a century now, but a part that many residents turn their back on most of the time.
"We are are all interested in animating the Parkway at night, bringing people out at night, when they might not normally be out on the Parkway, because there is a shared experience that they can find," Bach said. "This project slows people down. All of a sudden you're slowed down. You feel the Parkway. You're riding in it, part of a larger event. It's going to be fun for people. It also has underpinnings that are more serious, that have to do with the international connection this artist brings."